Jews & Sports: Premodern History

Throughout Jewish history until the rise of the Zionist movement, Jews have harbored negative attitudes toward sports, often with good reason.

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Josephus' account of Herod's own Olympic games reveals to us a new reason why Jewish religious leaders have rejected the potential positive Jewish values of sports. Whereas Jewish objections to Greek sports were primarily due to their inherently pagan character (as well as their nudity and frivolity), the Romans introduced a new dimension to the sports arena: cruelty and sadism, which even surpassed that of professional hockey.

The classic examples of Roman viciousness and sadism were the throwing of prisoners of all ages (among whom were probably numbered many captured Jewish freedom-fighters) before wild beasts, and gladiatorial combat. Herod included such displays in his own games, to the delight of the pagan tourists and to the indignant shock of his Jewish subjects. This sadistic element of Roman athletics seems to be the one that figures most prominently into the talmudic and rabbinic writings down to modern times.

Reports from the Talmud

The "theatres and circuses" are frequently identified and condemned in the Old Testament as places of idolatry and evil, though the Talmud writes that Jews were permitted to attend these events even on the sabbath, because they might be able to save the lives of victims--by indicating through the "thumbs up" gesture their wish that the victim's life be spared.

There is even reported the story of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, who was forced by economic difficulties to take up the life of a gladiator. The Talmud describes how his eventual opting for the life of Torah was at the expense of his athletic prowess since the two worlds--sports and Judaism--were perceived as inherently antithetical (Bickerman, 1979).

Zionist Revival

A radical departure from the normative Jewish antipathy towards athletics came about during the formative years of the Zionist revival in "Eretz Yisrael." The Zionist outlook saw that the life of the Torah must coexist in harmony with nature, and the spiritual redemption promised by the re-establishment of Jewish independence must be accompanied by a corresponding physical rebuilding of Jewish bodies.

At the second Zionist Congress, Max Nordau, a medical doctor, delivered a vigorous speech stressing the need to reestablish a "muscular Jewry." The 1927 Zionist Congress in Basle made a special request that care should be taken to hold athletic events, including football games, on weekdays, so that religious youths could participate freely.

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Joseph Levy

Joseph Levy is a retired professor at York University's School of Health Policy and Management. He is founder of the International Wellness Organization.